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Walls and Wire: Renegotiating Urban Space in Uganda

November 4, 2017

Two weeks into my fieldwork at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Kampala, Uganda I start to go slightly stir-crazy. I spend the majority of my days at the center and the moment that I almost break is on a Thursday after my fourth consecutive day. I am sitting in my small office that I share with the center’s occupational therapist Charles. He is a short man with square glasses that make him look like an eternal student type. He answers all my questions by first asking “Are you serious?” in a high intonation. Today he sits in a chair across the desk studiously looking at paperwork. I am sitting on the other side trying to plan lessons for the classes I will teach later that afternoon. However, I have been staring out the open window for at least a half hour. The window is about ten feet away from the tall concrete walls that encase the entire center. They are topped with not one, but two intertwined layers of sharp silver razor wire. The wall slopes down with the gradient of the land and after staring at the concrete walls for the past fourteen days I have finally daydreamed the exact spot where I would try and jump the fence if the opportunity presented itself. I tell Charles of my grand escape plan and he looks up from his papers eyes widening incredulously. “Are you serious?” he says. I explain that I am and tell him how in America, large concrete walls with razor wire are synonymous with prisons to me. He is still looking at me strangely as he tells me that the walls not only keep the patients in, but keep unwanted people out.  I ask Victoria, one of the clients of the center who had previously been living in Europe how she felt coming back to Uganda and being surrounded by walls. She laughed and told me that this was simply how it was in Uganda. If you had money, you built a wall to protect it. It eerily reminded me of the current situation back in the United States, where the idea of building a border wall is still a very real possibility.

 

 

Almost every urban public space had a wall with barbed wire surrounding it. In order to go to a mall, you had to pass not only a wall, but a security check beyond the wall.  These were not the mere fences or gated communities I had been conditioned to growing up in the suburbs of Virginia. The first time I went to a beach on Lake Victoria, I thought we had driven to the wrong place because we stopped outside a wired concrete wall before having a security check, paying a fee, and entering. Many of the public spaces in Uganda are subject to such privatization. However, this divisiveness doesn’t end with public spaces. The neighborhood I lived in also had walls to create separation. Our compound was encased with a concrete wall with sharp razor wire and a heavy metal gate. Other homes in the neighborhood also had high walls. Smaller homes in less wealthy parts of the neighborhood did not have the same kinds of walls. This remained a physical reminder of societal inequalities that surrounded me.

 

 

 

With increased urbanization, there is an increased privatization of both personal and public space. As Ferguson says in his book about development, Global Shadows, “the key questions are no longer temporal ones of societal becoming, but spatialized ones of guarding the edges of a status group - hence the new prominence of walls, borders, and process of social exclusion in an era that likes to imagine itself as characterized by an ever expanding connection a communication”(192).  In our current political situation, walls are a controversial topic. They’re built to keep people out, but also serve to renegotiate how space is conceptualized in urban Uganda. The continued expansion through continuous construction promises even more inequality and more walls. The question is how beliefs surrounding public and private spaces will evolve as the physical landscapes continue to change through development.

 

Works Cited:

Ferguson, J. (2007) Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.

 

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